If ever proof was needed regarding the capacity of Indian politics to come up with an absurdist twist, the revival of the Third Front ahead of the forthcoming general elections has confirmed it. The latest attempt by a motley constellation of political parties to come together in a rudimentary fashion has been outwardly positioned as a necessary counterbalance to the mainstream status quo. Yet this nebulous formulation will need to come up with considerably more than pious homilies to be taken seriously as a credible force.
To begin with, the initial press conference that announced the resurrection of the Third Front seemed to oscillate between hyperbole and vagueness. One particular constituent even went so far as to declaim without any irony, “This is not the Third Front, it is the First Front.” Yet for all the rhetoric on display about protecting secularism and combating corruption, precious little that had any substance was actually conveyed. Specific policy commitments were entirely absent. Nonetheless, the electorate was invited to seriously consider the prospect of an alliance between a disparate group of regional parties and Communists as a plausible government in waiting. To invert a maxim: far from embodying the audacity of hope, what came across initially was the hopeless audacity of it all.
Too many aspects about the Third Front remain uncertain at this stage. The days ahead will reveal whether this alliance gains any traction with the electorate. In this context, several observations about the Third Front are worth contemplating. First, the strands that bind the Third Front are extremely tenuous. The entire premise of the grouping lies in solely developing a counterpoint to the dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party at the Centre. Other than that, an enduring narrative is hard to find.
Second, the interesting conundrum of seeking differentiation with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was conveniently sidestepped. That may also prove to be a challenging theme for this alliance to confront.
Third, the impulses of the various parties that form the Third Front have often conflicted in the past. That does not point to a harmonious future either.
Fourth, the question of leadership has invariably tended to be a thorny subject and has been ducked for now. Yet, it is only a matter of time when that subject will need to be addressed transparently for the electorate.
The blunt truth also remains that Third Front governments in the recent past have never won an outright majority. Their tenure has also been short-lived. It is worth recalling that no Third Front government has ever seen through an entire parliamentary cycle. The V.P. Singh-led government lasted less than a year from December 1989 to November 1990. His successor Chandra Shekhar fared little better and resigned in March 1991. The H. D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral era governments in the mid-1990s were similarly ill-fated. The evidence points to the fact that Third Front coalitions tend to be chaotic and eventually crumble due to their internal contradictions and personality schisms.
Can India afford a repeat of this failed experiment? At a time when the Indian economy has suffered some headwinds, the possibility of an unwieldy Third Front government does not inspire confidence. On the contrary, a Third Front government is likely to trigger a policy paralysis, spook the markets and induce instability. Difficult and overdue structural reforms are unlikely to figure on the agenda either. The pressing need to curb the fiscal deficit and reducing the leviathan federal subsidy Bill are also likely to be given short shrift.
Ultimately, the weight of history suggests that Third Front governments do not lead to political or economic stability. Instead, they invariably precipitate a period of turbulence. In the run up to the general election, therefore, the real challenge lies for the Third Front to persuade the voters to take a different view this time around.
Rishabh Bhandari is a lawyer based in London.